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Love: A Valentine

The true nature and force of love.

We human beings were designed by evolution not only to survive, but, in the broadest sense, to love. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors depended heavily on the band or group for their survival, and the emotion or feeling of love is typically what reinforces the close emotional bonds that stabilize such a group. In one sense, love is like any other evolved emotion: it was created and sustained by natural selection because it worked – it helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors to survive, thrive, and reproduce. But love is, in another sense, an entirely unique emotion and phenomenon that, as we’ll see, appears to have arisen from an incredibly powerful, primal, and almost transcendent force.

In general, our capacity for love is most limited and restricted when we’re in ‘survival mode’ – when we feel, consciously or unconsciously, that our survival is at risk. When we’re out of survival mode, on the other hand, in what could be called a state of ‘homeostasis’ – a state of balance or equilibrium, where we feel physically and emotionally ‘safe’ – our capacity to feel and express love is generally greatest.

As we’ve discussed in previous posts, we are all biologically designed, like every other living thing, to be in homeostasis whenever possible. When we experience out-of-balance, non-homeostatic emotional states such as a strong hunger for food, these emotional states are designed to motivate behaviors – such as finding and eating food – that bring us back into homeostasis, or into a state of physical and emotional equilibrium. The general tendency for our bodies and brains to ‘want’ to be in homeostasis can be thought of as generating a global force or drive within us that we could call the ‘homeostatic drive’.

We’ve also discussed what Todd Ritchey and I have proposed is a dysfunctional ‘addictive’ drive, which arises from ‘evolutionary mismatch’ effects that occur whenever people live in environments – such as modern cities – that they are not biologically or evolutionarily adapted for. The addictive drive tends to throw people out of balance or equilibrium, into states of survival mode. Survival-mode states like anxiety or fear can become dysfunctionally reinforced in the brain, we’ve proposed, because they trigger the release of stress hormones that various lines of evidence suggest can deliver unconscious biochemical rewards to the brain. In this way, literal biochemical addictions to distressing, survival-mode emotional states like anxiety or fear can develop in nearly all of us. The addictive drive therefore throws us out of balance, into survival mode, and directly opposes the homeostatic drive, which is always seeking to bring us into balance, or homeostasis.

What I want to propose in this post is that the homeostatic drive is, in effect, the force of love.

Our first experience of love almost always derives from interactions with our mothers when we’re infants. When you were a fetus in your mother’s womb, you were quite literally part of your mother’s homeostatic drive, because when a pregnant mother is in homeostasis, her fetus will generally be also. And it’s been shown that when a pregnant mother is very anxious, for example, and is thus in survival mode, the stress hormone cortisol will not only be released into her circulation, but will also cross the placenta into the circulation of the fetus, thus presumably throwing the fetus into some form of survival mode as well. So whether the fetus is in homeostasis or in survival mode depends directly and almost solely on the mother’s homeostatic state and thus on her homeostatic drive.

And once a baby is born, what is the primary job of any mother? It’s to try her very best to keep the baby in homeostasis. The mother seeks, in effect, to take her own homeostatic drive that is designed to keep her in homeostasis whenever possible, and to extend that drive outward towards her baby. Although babies can signal their needs in a broad sense by crying or squirming or making a bad face, they generally can’t meet their needs by themselves, and instead rely on the mother or other caregiver to address those needs.

If the baby is hungry, cold, or unattended to, it will generally be out of equilibrium or homeostasis, emotionally and physically, and will feel fundamentally unsafe. Since the baby’s strongest needs are true survival needs, its life will be at significant risk if those needs are not addressed with at least some sense of urgency. When a mother feeds a hungry baby, puts a blanket around a cold baby, or holds a baby who needs attention and comfort, the baby will typically come out of survival mode and back into homeostasis.

The best mothers are driven – they want very, very much – to have the baby in homeostasis, and both the baby and the mother experience this ‘drive’ as love. This is why the baby’s smile is so incredibly rewarding to such a mother. The baby’s smile shows the mother that the baby is in a state of homeostasis, and signals that the loop is being closed: the homeostatic drive of the mother has been effectively extended towards the baby, and the baby’s smile is now reinforcing not only the mother’s feelings of love for the baby, but also the mother’s own state of homeostasis. When her baby smiles, a mother will usually smile too.

Although adult relationships are very different in many ways from the relationship between a mother and her baby, the core expression of love is actually extremely similar in both cases. When you love someone deeply, especially when you feel emotionally connected to and loved by that person also, you very much want them to be in homeostasis at all levels, and the non-homeostatic distress of witnessing their pain is often even more wretched than your own pain.

When you feel someone’s homeostatic drive extended earnestly and lovingly towards you, when you have no doubt that a particular person truly loves you, it feeds and nourishes the homeostatic drive within you – then you can love yourself better. The incredibly powerful force of the homeostatic drive is always washing through our brains and our bodies, doing its best to take care of us at all levels and thus expressing, in effect, its love for us.

Like the homeostatic drive, love itself is deeply intertwined with our bodies and our bodily states. When someone we love is in pain, we will, to varying degrees, simulate and feel that pain viscerally, in our own bodies, partly by using the topographic maps in our brains that respond to and activate our body states. Our homeostatic drive, when extended outward towards that person, will then seek to do what it can to help them return to homeostasis, to ease their pain, much as it would try to ease our own pain. And, as with a mother and her child, the satisfying, and often blissful, feeling of seeing a person we love shifting from a state of survival mode into a state of homeostasis will inevitably register in us at a visceral, body level.

The body, of course, has many ways of giving us great joy and pleasure – the body certainly knows how to have fun. And yet the body is also, at best, always right on the edge, one might say, of being more than a bit uncouth. Partly for this reason, and for other similar reasons, many people – particularly people in Western cultures, it seems – can develop profound feelings of shame about, and even disgust for, their bodies. But our bodies are always sacred, our bodies are redeemed, because they are the vehicles of our love. Love isn’t distilled and delivered to us externally like some ethereal fragrance that’s sprayed in our vicinity. Love is embodied – our bodies are what directly provide nurturance and care for others, and, furthermore, if the force of love, as I’m proposing, is the homeostatic drive, then this drive or force is intrinsically embodied. The homeostatic drive percolates through all of our cells and tissues and organs, and then somehow rises up as a unified force that does its best to take care of us, to love us, at all levels: physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. And when we truly love other people, we extend this very same drive or force towards them.

Unfortunately, we are also more than capable of extending our addictions and addictive patterns towards other people as well. Just as we can derive unconscious rewards, or ‘payoffs’, from the stress hormones released in our brains when we throw ourselves into unnecessary states of survival mode, we can also derive payoffs from throwing other people into states of survival mode. And so we can often develop literal biochemical addictions to the survival-mode dramas, conflicts, and pain that may arise within our relationships.

Some conflict in any relationship is almost inevitable. Things have to be worked out – your wants and needs typically will not fit precisely with your partner’s wants and needs. But if a repeated pattern exists where you and your partner consistently throw each other of out of balance, into survival mode, for no objectively persuasive reason, then that pattern is very likely being driven by biochemical addiction. Of course there may be a lot of love in the relationship also. But anything that throws us out of balance, that creates survival-mode pain and distress within us or within others for no good reason, unnecessarily, is a manifestation of addiction, not an expression of love.

Because the homeostatic drive is, in a real sense, the conveyor of all life and the force of all love, when the drive itself becomes somehow highlighted or even vaguely illuminated, we instinctually perceive it as being somehow sacred. Stories of people who struggle, who endure incredible loss and suffering and then find their way back home and back to themselves, who rise again in triumph, who love again – these stories can be so powerful and moving to us because they highlight the seemingly miraculous power of the homeostatic drive. Whenever we behold the homeostatic drive and, consciously or unconsciously, see or feel what it does and can do, we can’t help but be profoundly moved.

Love in its pure state is the desire for the loved other to be in homeostasis at all levels. To say ‘I love you’ to someone is to say: I really care about your homeostasis – your homeostasis means something to me. When you truly love someone, you may sometimes have the urge to ‘eat’ them, to enfold them in your own homeostatic drive, your own love, so that the drive can serve them as it serves you. When people kiss passionately or make love, they form, in effect, an electrical connector through which their homeostatic drives can align and merge like two colliding waves.

While the homeostatic drive works to connect and balance us at all levels, to serve and nurture our authentic selves, the addictive drive throws us out of balance and disconnects us at all levels – from our bodies, our authentic emotions, from our core values and aspirations, and from the people we care about. If the addictive drive is a dominant force within you and your relationship to yourself, it will almost certainly be a dominant force in your relationships with other people also. But the more you can operate out of the homeostatic drive, the more of your addictive patterns you can overcome, the more loving you will be towards yourself, and the more actual love you will have available to give to others.

The homeostatic drive is the force of love, and so if we allow that force to guide us, to take us, love is where we will land. Love is the root, but love is also the flower. Love is the engine and love is the destination.

Further reading:

Montgomery, J & Ritchey, T. 2010. The Answer Model: A new path to healing. Santa Monica, CA: TAM Books